UT lab takes new perspective on global bee crisis

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Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

A world without bees would be a world without guacamole, oranges or coffee. And with American honey bee colonies disappearing at a rate of 40 percent per year, this reality might not be far away. 

While many scientists are investigating larger environmental causes behind this crisis, UT integrative biology professor Nancy Moran is taking a new perspective. Instead of looking at the external factors, her research focuses on the bees themselves. Specifically, she studies the bees’ guts to get a closer look at the microbes at work inside. 

Waldan Kwong is a postdoctoral researcher who works with honey bee microbiomes. He began working with Moran while pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale. 

“The main goal of the lab is to obtain a basic understanding of microbes and how they interact with hosts. And the system we do this in are bees,” Kwong said. 

In one project, Moran and her researchers studied the effect of gut microbes on bees’ immune systems.

In order to do this, they created germ-free bees, or bees raised without microbes in their guts. This is done by separating the bees from their colony as pupae. Adult bees get their microbes from exposure to the colony, so this separation ensures that these bees are free from outside influence. 

For the project, researchers fed pathogenic bacteria to germ-free bees as well as bees with varying levels of beneficial gut microbes. 

“We were interested in how these beneficial bacteria might protect the bee against pathogens.” said Moran in an interview with College of Natural Sciences news. 

According to Kwong, this research is important for a number of reasons. For one, a greater understanding of the bee microbiome would enable scientists to create probiotics for ailing bee colonies by exposing them to the respective bacteria. 

Kwong said the information gathered from bees can be applied to humans, since their simple biological systems mimic the complex microbial environment of a human gut. 

“Bees have a very simplified microbiome compared to humans,” Kwong said. “We have hundreds, up to thousands, of species in our guts. Bees’ have eight to nine.”

Moran began her research at Yale, and relocated her lab to Texas in 2013. After deciding to make the move, she was faced with the daunting task of transporting over 100,000 bees from Connecticut to Texas on a three-day trip. 

To transport the bees, Moran rented a minivan and packed the bees up at night. Moran, a postdoctoral student, placed duct tape over the bee boxes to make sure the bees couldn’t get out. They then drove for three days.

“If the whole thing opened up by accident I told them to jump out of the car, close the door and run. Luckily, nothing like that happened.” Moran said. 

This year, the Moran lab joined the Freshman Research Initiative with a new stream focused on insect microbiomes.

“The first few days I was a little intimidated by the lab because I had very little experience beforehand.” said Shelby Leonardi, a biology freshman who is in the stream. “But all of the mentors working in the lab have been really helpful, and they’re always happy to answer our questions.“